When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rushern Baker III launched his first television ad of Maryland’s 2022 campaign, he chose to focus on murders in Baltimore, telling viewers “nobody in power gives a damn” about the carnage because the victims are Black and vowing to “stop the slaughter of young Black men.”
And it’s not just Baker, a former Prince George’s County executive, who’s been talking about crime and policing on the campaign trail.
Former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler has tried to make crime-fighting a central plank of his campaign, saying at a news conference Tuesday outside City Hall that crime in Baltimore is “the one issue on everyone’s mind.” And fellow Democrat Wes Moore dedicated a recent campaign event to Baltimore’s persistently high homicide rate, and sought to pin part of the blame on outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan over staffing shortages at the state’s probation and parole agency.
Meanwhile, Republican Kelly Schulz, seen as the front-runner for her party’s nomination, on Tuesday called violent crime a “top concern across the state.” Her campaign claims “violent criminals have been emboldened by weak prosecutors and feckless politicians, who have devalued members of law enforcement and neglected to take legislative action to hold violent criminals accountable.”
Increasingly, candidates from both major parties are weighing in on crime and how they would fight it as governor.
Crime was a hot-button issue from the 1960s through the 1990s as homicide rates rose starkly. When they dropped precipitously over the next 10 years, it appeared to move to the back burner.
Now, there’s a renewed political focus on crime after a sudden jump in homicides nationally in recent years. Data that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last month showed homicides surged 35% in 2020. Preliminary data suggests killings continued to rise in 2021.
In Baltimore, a spate of horrific killings has pushed crime and policing — long a major issue in the city — to the forefront of local politics. Several Democratic City Council members last month demanded more detailed plans from Mayor Brandon Scott on addressing crime and expressed skepticism over the Democratic mayor’s efforts to implement a crime prevention strategy.
Homicides in Baltimore surged in 2015 — Hogan’s first year in office — after mass protests over police brutality and civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in custody. The city has recorded more than 300 homicides in each of the past seven years and is on track to eclipse that mark again this year.
Although other jurisdictions in the state have also seen increases in crime, Maryland politicians largely put Baltimore at the center of any discussion about the issue.
Mileah Kromer, a pollster and political science professor at Goucher College, said the share of voters identifying crime and public safety as the top issue facing the state and the most pressing priority for state government has grown in recent years. In the most recent Goucher Poll in March, a quarter of residents named it their No. 1 concern.
“Crime is going to be a really important, top-of-mind issue for voters,” said Kromer, “but the role it plays in determining the outcome depends on how the [candidates] position themselves on the issue.”
“The major concern for people in Baltimore City is the conversation about crime, unfortunately,” said Karsonya “Kaye” Whitehead, a talk show host on WEAA-FM in Baltimore and a professor at Loyola University Maryland. “It has become more marked over the last few weeks with the gubernatorial candidates.”
Police reform efforts dominated headlines during the General Assembly’s 2021 session. Democratic leaders pushed through a raft of policies designed to make it easier to hold officers accountable for abuses and increase scrutiny of police, including by repealing Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and subjecting disciplinary records to potential disclosure under the Public Information Act. The drive came in response to nationwide protests in the summer of 2020 over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
“People are not talking about policing in the same way. … You’re watching a real shift in the conversation,” said Whitehead. She said she’s observed it nationally over the past two years, particularly among people on the left.
But the urge to reform or restructure police departments has been met with growing public concern about rising numbers of murders.
“A candidate that’s speaking directly to that problem of fear is one that’s getting people’s attention right now,” Whitehead said.
Most Democratic candidates responding to a Baltimore Sun voter guide question about how to address crime cited the need to both cultivate more community trust in police through reforms and increased accountability, and to boost funding to bolster patrols or target people suspected of violent crime. Most also cited addressing poverty, addiction and mental health through better social services and more investment in education as long-term solutions.
Some Baltimore residents have called for cutting police funding and shifting tax dollars to social services, including at the city’s recent Taxpayers’ Night. But notably, neither Scott — who has proposed a $5 million increase in police funding — nor any of the leading Democratic candidates for governor, has fully embraced those demands or backed slashing police budgets.
Baker and Gansler have talked about hiring more police officers and, along with fellow candidate Ralph Jaffe, called for potentially deploying National Guard troops to Baltimore. Several other candidates — including Moore and Tom Perez — endorse hiring more probation and parole officers.
Jerome Segal, formerly of the Bread and Roses Party, now campaigning as a Democrat, was the only candidate to echo some of the activist calls. Segal wrote that “relying on policing has been disastrous, resulting in a new kind of fear, fear of the police themselves” and said “prison as we know it should be abolished.”
Democrat John King, a former U.S. education secretary seeking the nomination, has derided rhetoric from Hogan to “Re-Fund The Police” as “playing dog-whistle politics and scapegoating Baltimore.” King pledged to take a “holistic approach to reducing crime” and calls policing “necessary, but not sufficient, for public safety.” He gave emotional testimony in the legislature in favor of juvenile justice reforms while citing his childhood brushes with the law. In his voter guide response, King also said better, mandatory training is needed for officers who, in his words, face fewer requirements than “barbers and hairstylists.”
Jon Baron, a former federal appointee and nonprofit executive in the race, stressed putting funding behind “focused deterrence” efforts. That’s when government officials target individuals they suspect might commit violence with offers to connect with social services, while vowing aggressive prosecution of crimes.
Ashwani Jain, a White House appointee in the administration of Democrat Barack Obama, emphasized the need to improve community trust in police and called for decriminalizing most drugs and removing resource officers from schools.
Gubernatorial power limited
Governors have only limited power to directly address policing and criminal prosecutions. Law enforcement agencies, with the notable exception of the Maryland State Police, are run at the local level. Decisions on how to handle criminal charges fall to locally elected state’s attorneys.
But governors hold considerable power over state spending. That gives them the ability to bolster local budgets or influence policy through grants. And some of Hogan’s Democratic critics contend state agencies, especially the Division of Probation and Parole, could do more to partner with local law enforcement and keep tighter tabs on individuals under supervision.
Hogan applied the “Re-Fund The Police” language this year to his public safety budget — which included a $150 million increase to cover raises for state police, more funding for local law enforcement, money for body cameras and other items — a rebuke to activist calls to “defund the police.”
In The Sun’s voter guide, Baker and Gansler cited crime as the top issue facing the state. They’ve put public safety at the heart of their campaigns and tried to position themselves as the Democratic candidates most focused on bolstering law enforcement patrols.
Baker, who oversaw the Prince George’s police department during his two terms as executive from 2010 to 2018, vows to declare a state of emergency in Baltimore. He said this spring that he’d send state troopers to the city to clear “squeegee boys” — young people who wash windshields in traffic — from the streets and push them toward job programs.
Gansler, meanwhile, claims he holds the strongest crime-fighting bona fides of any candidate. He’s a former federal prosecutor and Montgomery County state’s attorney, as well as serving as state attorney general from 2007 to 2015.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Perez, himself a former federal prosecutor, pointed in The Sun’s voter guide, to his experience prosecuting crime. He also stressed his role overseeing federal investigations of police abuses, which led to court-mandated reforms, when he led the Justice Department’s civil rights division during Obama’s first term.
Moore and Peter Franchot, the four-term state comptroller seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, told The Sun they would both pursue police accountability and crack down on crime. Franchot said he has “zero tolerance” for crime and police misconduct; Moore said he believes in policing with “maximum accountability and appropriate intensity.” Like most other Democrats in the race, they emphasized the role expanded social and mental health services can play in alleviating crime.
‘What’s changed is that crime has gotten worse.’
Schulz, a Republican and Hogan protege who spent eight years as a cabinet secretary in his administration and is running for governor with his endorsement, talks tough on crime, as he does. Schulz has vowed to “treat our criminals like criminals and our police officers like heroes.”
Rival Dan Cox, a state delegate, did not respond to The Sun’s questionnaire. Cox was endorsed by former GOP President Donald Trump, an interparty rival of Hogan’s. Republicans Robin Ficker and Joe Werner are also seeking the nomination. Ficker responded for the voter guide that economic development was the answer to battling crime in Baltimore. Also, as a former defense attorney, he said he’s fought for people to be treated fairly by police. Werner didn’t respond to the survey.
Republican strategist Doug Mayer, a Hogan adviser working on Schulz’s campaign, contended that Republican politicians such as Hogan and Schulz have kept a consistent message on “the importance of law and order for a long time,” while Democrats have vacillated.
“Public sentiment has shifted to such a degree that even in a Democratic primary in Maryland, talking about anything other than funding the police is political suicide,” Mayer said. “What’s changed is that crime across the country has gotten worse.”
This is the first in a series of articles about issues of vital importance to Maryland voters and facing the state’s next governor starting in 2023.